Photo: Sharp Image/Mint
Photo: Sharp Image/Mint

Easwari lending library: A haven for readers

Technological advances have changed how books are consumed and distributed, but Chennai's oldest lending library takes it in its stride

The scent of mildewed paper merges with that of fresh glue, shrivelled flowers and incense sticks, while nostalgia wafts out of nearly every shelf at the Easwari Lending Library on Lloyds Road. Memories of somnolent summers filled with raw mangoes, cricket, cousins and Blyton are crammed into the shelves of the children’s section.

A slightly battered copy of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is slipped between hardbound volumes of Dickens, Hardy, the Brontes, Dumas, Maugham and, of course, Austen. An entire rack of books with unapologetically suggestive titles such as Girl in the Bedouin Tent, King of the Desert, Undone by His Touch and Captive in the Castle need no explanation even without the trademark Mills and Boon logo (the M and the B, separated by an & symbol surmounted by a blossoming rose) on their spine.

There are places where you can relive those minor existential crises of youth (the stack of Woolfe, Plath, Rand, Nin and Sartre); spots that bubble with the ghosts of laughter past (Crompton, Durrell, Bond and Dahl); and corners crammed with chronicles of human nature (Reader’s Digest back issues, Chicken Soup for the Soul, anthologies of O’Henry and Guy de Maupassant).

T.N. Palani, the man behind one of the oldest lending libraries in Chennai, is slight and greying with horn-rimmed glasses and a large moustache. He appears as unassuming as the library itself, which is small, plainly furnished and a little stuffy. He isn’t very garrulous at first, but talk about books and his eyes light up, “I started this library in 1955," he says. “I loved reading, but in Chennai, back then, only government libraries existed."

Palani, who once owned a scrap business, started the library with a collection of Tamil books from his own personal stash. Over time, he added to the collection books bought from Moore Market. Today, the library, which runs from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, has 11 branches and about 450,000 books. It has helped put together libraries in clubs, gated communities and IT companies, has a strong online presence and has recently ventured into door-to-door delivery.

Vinodhini Vaidyanathan, a city-based theatre actor, says, “I have been visiting the Gopalapuram branch of the library since I was a child. It may be a dingy place but it has that lovely smell of books. It was and still is a ritual to go there. Every time I go, I bring at least seven or eight books back. And their Tamil collection is good too—I remember my parents borrowing all of Balakumaran’s books from Easwari."

Palani, who runs all this with the help of his two sons, P. Satish and P. Saravanan, explains the operating model of the library: “We collect a refundable deposit from our customers of Rs500 and charge 10% of the cost of each book borrowed as reading cost," he says. They also have some special packages for customers who read a lot—a rare enough species, he adds.

(from left) P. Satish, T.N. Palani and P. Saravanan. Photo: Sharp Image/Mint
(from left) P. Satish, T.N. Palani and P. Saravanan. Photo: Sharp Image/Mint

“We used to have an equal number of children, women and men visiting us when we started," Palani says. “Now, 60% of our customers are women, 30% children and only 10% are men; men don’t read any more, I think," he says with a smile.

Also, while children still read, their reading tastes have changed considerably, adds Satish. “Children today read books that their peers talk about. The Geronimo Stilton and Wimpy Kid series are very popular, as are the fantasy novels of Percy Jackson and The Hunger Games series. Not too many children read Enid Blyton anymore; and they opt for a classic only if it is part of a school assignment," he says.

The decline in reading itself is not the only issue a library faces, says Saravanan. “Property prices and rentals in the city have escalated. We had planned to create reading rooms but we can’t afford to with these rentals," he says, “We were really lucky that most of the library spaces in the city are owned by us."

Staff is another issue, says Satish. “It isn’t an easy job and not everyone is cut out for it. It isn’t enough to just sit here and check out books. You need to analyse customers, understand their reading tastes, help them choose books," he says, adding that their older staff is better suited for this role than the younger lot.

Natasha Sri Ram, a human resources professional who has been a member of the library for over 10 years, seems satisfied with the staff at the branch she frequents. “They are very helpful—they know exactly what I like reading and let me know whenever they get new books by my favourite authors."

Ram Kumar, who works for Ford India, agrees that the staff is competent. “I used to visit the library long ago, when I was still in school. The staff always remembered my name and face, managed to find all the books I asked for, and would let me stand and browse without shooing me away. They were very kind," he recalls.

The library has seen the who’s who of the city visiting it, says Palani. “Rajinikanth, V.V. Giri, Vairamuthu, Kamal Haasan, they’ve all come here," he says. A testimonial by actor Kamal Haasan, stuck on one of the shelves, backs his claim. “Easwari lending library is where I really started my reading habit," says the testimonial, “I read many books at a time. Reading is now at a low end since I am writing Marmayogi, my next film."

“Easwari is an icon," agrees Ram Kumar. Evelyn Jeba Jonathan, a content writer, adds, “Not only is the variety they have excellent, but the condition of the books is good too. This is important to me—I hate reading something that is torn or tattered."

“We used to buy a lot of books secondhand from Moore Market," says Satish, “But today we prefer to purchase new books. We work with several distributors, buy books online and also import them sometimes."

Advances in technology may have caused a distinct shift in the way books are consumed and distributed, but Satish takes it in his stride. “ Yes, the fact that now people can purchase books over Flipkart and read them off their Kindles does make it more difficult for us. However, they may not get the sort of variety we have here," he says.

He plans to invest more time and effort on making the library more accessible through technology—connecting branches, storing customer information and predicting their reading patterns. “We have families who have been coming here for decades. We hope that this will continue," he says.

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